We love stories here at Buffalo Jackson, the threads that string back into our past and intertwine into our collective history. When Lee Harris emailed us out of the blue, he described his father, a man who lived a vastly different life than what we experience today. He told the story of a man that lived through America's most tumultuous decade and left his mark on its history. The following conversation dives into that story and the history surrounding the Dopp Kit.

 

 

Q. In your own words, please tell me who you father was and what he meant to you.

 

A. My Dad was Jerome Harris, born in Humboldt Park Chicago in 1918. His childhood was very different than what you’d experience today. He began full-time work at the age of 14 for Uncle Charlie who owned the Charles Doppelt Company. His job was to clean the toilets and factory buildings. The was one outside sewing machine repairman who my father watched work repairing the factory machines, his natural curiosity made him learn the in’s and out’s of the machinery.

 

Jerome Harris and wife

 

My Dad earned every position at Doppelt, nothing was given to him. As my Dad exceeded each task; Toilet cleaner, leather cutter, sewing machine operator, assistant foreman, foreman, salesman, sales manager, designer, development of products trademarked with retailers like Hugh Hefner/Playboy, Marshall Fields, etc...he became known as Mr. Dopp!

 

Q. Your father was just a young man when the Great Depression swept over the country, did he ever speak of those years and how they affected his life?

 

A. Yes, he discussed the Depression. Everything he did in business was to maximize the ability of the company's survival in any downturn vaguely resembling the Depression. Very few days passed, if any, that he didn't worry about money, about not being a dependent, or relying on others. The Depression left extremely deep scars in him.

 

 

His decisions always first weighed the downside risks, many times preventing him from taking chances, despite great returns. Throughout my life, I questioned (even now)-the great business he would have created for himself if only he stepped out of the shadows of self-doubt. I think this is the fundamental reason for my own success, whatever that might be.

 

Jeromes Family around the kitchen table

 

We're all products of our genetic & environmental experiences. My Dad really was an injured but defiantly strong spirit. I gave him a gold lion ring because of his fiercely powerful, deep loyalty to family. He wouldn't hesitate to put his life down for me, or those he loved. He did that in the factory in fact, when an employee was physically attacked. He built a company of 130 employees. I thought many were my Aunts & Uncles...because they worked for Doppelt, under my Dad for 20-35 years. Many called him when he retired at 70+ years old urging him to start his own leather company to work for him. He was deeply and dearly loved.

 

 

Q. You mentioned your father spent time in Europe fighting during World War II, did he talk about his experiences from that time period?

 

 

A. As you are surely aware; the men came back from Germany with severe, undiagnosed PTSD. It revealed itself in severe, but undetected ways. Many just dove into non-stop work. Many simply became lifelong insomniacs. I realize more as I get older that my dad did both. He worked 6 days a week, before and after the War from about 14-years-old certainly into his 50's. He retired at about 61-years-old after 46 years of work.

 

I remember asking him often, what battles he went through, about the concentration camps. My Dad would always joke at the questions, many times teasing or tickling me to change the subject. He only told a few humorous stories over & over, masking over his real 4+ years experience. He'd tell the story about being stationed in England, during the buzz bomb period.  He told us about the sound when our "flak," would fail to knock out the bomb, rather knock the tail off and all soldiers running for cover not knowing where the bombs would land. But he did tell about the time a bomb landed in the middle of a theater full of US soldiers, that he had to help search through, finding soldiers dead in their seats. Like they were still alive, dead from the concussion of the bomb. He talked about when he was on night guard watch, cleaning his rifle and looked into the barrel of the M-1 and saw something (having left it empty.)  Apparently, another soldier grabbed it for their watch and loaded it. My Dad said he took off the safety, discharged it, missing his head, and blowing a hole through the ceiling where the soldiers slept in barracks above. Somehow no one was injured.

 

World War II

 

My dad saw the worst of the war, from Normandy he was in the wave of liberating the "walking dead" from the Nazi concentration camps. I asked him if he entered the Camps and he told me of the overwhelming stench from miles away that surrounded the camps, most likely from the crematoriums. My dad was once even ordered to clean out the crematorium, he risked being court Marshall but he disobeyed the orders. The closest my dad ever came to explaining what he saw, was when we went to see Saving Private Ryan together at the movies. The opening scene of the annihilation from the fortified bunkers holding German machine guns, firing into the US soldiers dying as they left the duck boats portaging onto the beach he said was "deadly" accurate. He was there only days into D-Day, at Omaha Beach.

 

 

The only physical scars I saw...he had flat feet from the endless marching in ice-cold, wet conditions, and an injured kidney (effectively causing him to be on dialysis the final year of his life when the good one gave out from dye needed to scan his cardiovascular vessels). Dad never complained about his life. The last day I saw him alive while he was battling kidney failure, he told me, “I’ve had a great life, I have no complaints. I met your Mom, we danced for 60 years together, we traveled, to Portugal, took cruises.” The next day he died from cardiac arrest during a routine procedure.  My Dad taught me how to live, he taught me how to die.

 

 

Q. That is truly an unimaginable time in history, it’s so powerful that you can share your fathers' experiences. Let’s go back to Chicago, the Dopp kit is now a household name and is a multimillion dollar industry, how did your father play a role in the creating and manufacturing of the first Dopp kits?

 

A. My father did not originally invent the Dopp Kit. I believe my uncle Charlie patented it in 1928 or 1929. However, my father created many variations, including a miniature version for jewelry. He invented the first hard case men's briefcase (interior construction of wood), the first thumb combination locks on briefcases/attachés, and the first leather ID tags for suitcases to utilize the precious leather scraps from cutting for Dopp kits. He pioneered using different interior fabrics (and exterior) in the ladies clutch purses, handbags, and briefcases-ranging from paisley cloth designs through faux-suede. After my uncle's company sold to Samsonite my father was appointed to Director of Operations; where he continued to work for many years. After which Samsonite sold to Beatrice Foods and my father was appointed to their Board of Directors.

 

Q. In just a few words, What lessons did your father teach you that still guide you today?

 

A. Honesty

Integrity

Tenacity

Enjoy each day

Don't worry away your future